Alice Walker’s Everyday Use, a short story written in the late 1960s, is, perhaps, a story of cultural discrepancies in the American society of the 50s and 60s caused by racial issues. The story shows how one’s culture and heritage could be seen from different points of view. This essay is focused on the cultural conflict between two sisters – Maggie and Dee – whose characters are neatly contrasted in the story by its author.
In Walker’s “Everyday Use” Making Literature Matter: An Anthology for Readers and Writers Maggie is described as a physically inferior and mentally slow girl using certain literal techniques. Maggie’s physical inferiority is depicted in the very beginning of the story when it is told that Maggie had
burn scars down her arms and legs (383). Moreover, such words as
arms sticking and
hair smoking generate in readers’ minds an image of an injured little girl appealing for sympathy. Maggie’s character in the story is a reflection of the African Americans mindful of their physical and mental injuries who do not though forget the real meaning of words “culture” and “heritage”.
Dee, Maggie’s sister is described as a girl who is
lighter than Maggie, with nicer hair and a fuller figure (384). Dee, in contrary, is a character which represents the part of the African Americans – numerous in the late 1960s – who considered themselves the new generation of black people in America. They followed such movements as the Black Power Movement and assumed their heritage be of historical value at best.
Maggie is defined by Alice Walker as a tragic character retarded both physically and mentally, though having lofty ideals. At the same time, Dee is depicted through the story as a person favored with everything, though having poor spirit.
Girls’ mother says about Maggie:
she has been like this, chin on chest, eyes on ground, feet in shuffle, ever since that fire burned our other house to the ground (384). Mama also denotes that Maggie always resembles a weak animal that had been run over - though not to death – by a car. Dee’s despotic and cold behavior compared with Maggie’s fearful and slow attitude seems even more contrasting. Just as Maggie and Dee, Walker’s black contemporaries were divided into two parts representing different views and opinions about the problem of heritage.
From mama’s words we learn that Dee was always disposed towards precious things. This attitude has cultivated taste for material values. When the family house was burnt to ashes, Dee has experienced the internal tragedy of material kind,
Why don’t you do a dance around the ashes? I’d wanted to ask her. She had hated the house that much. (385)
Dee’s evaluation of her heritage is rather material as opposed to that of her ancestors’ beliefs. In the social sense, such beliefs appeared to be old-fashioned towards those of the new generation of the African Americans who sought for material wealth.
I couldn’t stand it anymore, being named after the people that oppress me, (386) Dee declares informing Maggie and Mama she has changed the name. Nevertheless, Dee later learns that she was named after her aunt who, in turn, was named after her grandmother.
The evidence of heritage and culture contradictions becomes even clearer as quilt appear in the story.
Dee considers the quilts priceless and decides to put them on the wall. However, everybody remembers Dee’s proposal about passing the quilts to local university as she considered them to be old-fashioned. Dee’s dilemma in this story might be projected into external social plane. Moreover, it might be considered that there was a dilemma in global sense for those who defined themselves as the “new culture”.
You just don’t understand…Your heritage, (387) Dee says after it was decided to give the quilts to Maggie.
Dee, however, believed her heritage to be of material matter solely. On the contrary, Maggie was aware of great knowledge of her great culture. Therefore, we have two cultures contemporary to Alice Walker who tried to notice the differences between both of them by putting them into two characters of her short story.